Saturday, September 20, 2008

White Privilege and the Republican Ticket

This week we discussed white privilege in my intro to women's and gender studies class. By coincidence, earlier this week Tim Wise published a nice list of thirteen ways John McCain and Sarah Palin have benefited from white privilege. Here are a few of my favorites:
White privilege is when you can get pregnant at 17 like Bristol Palin and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, because "every family has challenges," even as black and Latino families with similar "challenges" are regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters of social decay. ...

White privilege is when you can attend four different colleges in six years like Sarah Palin did (one of which you basically failed out of, then returned to after making up some coursework at a community college), and no one questions your intelligence or commitment to achievement, whereas a person of color who did this would be viewed as unfit for college and probably someone who only got in in the first place because of affirmative action. ...

White privilege is being able to have a husband who was a member of an extremist political party that wants your state to secede from the Union, and whose motto was "Alaska first," and no one questions your patriotism or that of your family, while if you're black and your spouse merely fails to come to a 9/11 memorial so she can be home with her kids on the first day of school, people immediately think she's being disrespectful.
Go read the rest of it. The whole thing is pretty good. I just wish I could figure out a way to use it in my class without being perceived as overtly partisan. (In the interests of disclosure, I've told my students I support Obama, but I'm careful to be even-handed when it comes to partisan politics, making sure Republicans don't feel squelched and criticizing Democrats on such points as Bill Clinton's complicity with the Defense of Marriage Act.) Maybe one could ask how Joe Biden, too, has benefited from white privilege?

Anyway, what's missing for me in Wise's list is a serious attempt at intersectional analysis. While he rightly skewers white privilege, he doesn't attempt to address how it intersects with class privilege and male privilege. No, I don't expect him to throw around academese like "intersectionality" in the popular press. I would expect him to incorporate it implicitly into his analysis.

For example, the last paragraph quoted above shows how Michelle Obama was criticized as a black American for not fulfilling a public role - but as a black woman, she would be equally vulnerable to charges of bad mothering. This puts her in a double bind; she had no "right" choice in that situation.

More significantly, Wise almost seems to assume that white privilege negates the effects of sexism for white women:
White privilege is being able to convince white women who don't even agree with you on any substantive issue to vote for you and your running mate anyway, because all of a sudden your presence on the ticket has inspired confidence in these same white women and made them give your party a "second look."
As I wrote a few days ago, women have waited a long time to vote for a female presidential candidate. Some still yearn for it in this election cycle (even if the female candidate is only running for VP). Of course, unless they're conservative fundamentalists, they'd be loony to vote for McCain-Palin. But some of these women definitely are giving Palin a second look due to her sex. Luckily, they also seem to be giving her a third look, and what they're learning about her positions so far explains why her favorables are plummeting.

I'm sure some white women will vote for Palin simply because they feel they can identify with her. The same may be true for a fraction of black men who vote for Obama. But would we attribute their choice solely to male privilege if they vote for Obama even though they mostly disagree with him on the issues? That's basically the move Wise makes for white women. Or can we empathize with the thrill that members of historically oppressed groups might feel - even to the point of irrational voting decisions - just to see someone like them who's running?

This isn't rocket science. But it's a point you can miss if you overlook the fact that racism doesn't operate independently of sexism, classism, and all those other charming -isms.

No comments: